Don't Look Down

  Alistair Gentry  
  London, UK  

October 2018

I don't have credit cards any more. I still owe thousands of pounds on them, but I don't use them. Sometimes I used credit cards to meet my responsibilities as a commissioned artist or artist in residence. Like millions of other people, I've also had to rely on credit just to cover basic living costs like food, rent or making sure I could get to work, either because I was underpaid or because invoices went unpaid for months. Of course it's a privilege, albeit a dubious one, to have those cards or any other credit in the first place, but in turn I'm not as privileged as somebody who could get a mortgage. As a self-employed person with a generally low and extremely irregular income– and now a truly diabolical credit rating as well– there's basically no chance I will ever have a mortgage or own residential property unless I marry somebody who already has a house.

Most of the practicing artists I know may not think of themselves as debtors but they too live on borrowing: perpetual overdrafts, accessing the income of a partner or family member, and secretly using facilities from their other jobs are all very common. So is simply eating the total cost of whatever they've been asked to do, essentially borrowing from themselves. Several generations of artists developed their careers while they were on the dole: no longer an option in the punitive and coercive welfare model we have now. These strategies all point to an unbalanced ledger. The arts, blatantly but in perfect silence, rely upon artists and arts workers being in debt and doing more work than they'll ever be paid for, not to mention giving generously of themselves and their resources in less economically measurable ways. Even if you're fortunate enough to be a step up from the struggling unpaid artist cliché, when you're working on a commission it's widely assumed you can front up money for materials or other costs and claim it back on a fairly relaxed timetable if you get it at all. “Just buy a ticket and we'll reimburse you,” or “keep your receipts” might sound generous but again, the assumption is that being out of pocket (or in credit card debt, for example) for a few months is no big deal. Ideally a self-employed person or small business should have a financial buffer to cover these things, just as baby boomer so-called experts– who had everything handed to them and could sign on for years after their totally free state education– blithely assert that you should have at least a year's salary in savings, as if even having a salary is easy to do now. “Just cut back on matcha flat whites and avocado marshmallow toast, you lazy little Millennial fuck, you'd have your mortgage deposit in no time.” Back in actual reality, if you can afford to put so much money away then you probably don't need that kind of safety margin to begin with.

It's important to remember that nowadays money and monetary debt have no objective reality. A bank doesn't deprive itself of cash when it “loans” you money for your business, mortgage or car. Actually you have conditional use of the bank's property until you've paid them the sum they created when they mouse-clicked your loan into existence. The Bank of England itself says that 97% of the UK's money is not currency (i.e. actual coins and notes) but electronic deposits, mainly created by the act of lending How Money Works. Not paying it back doesn't deprive them of anything either, except good standing in the eyes of their shareholders and those “markets” that are now unironically referred to as if they were a sentient, moral gestalt being rather than roomfuls of chinless, barely educated investment bankers pretending they're in control of the countless AI servers running trillions of ineffable micro-transactions every day. If the markets really were a person, they'd be a coked-up, paranoid, bipolar one whose good friends would advise they stop making big decisions and take some time to get well. Imagine a libertarian Carrie Fisher but not at all funny or self-aware.

Conversely, the borrowing that the visual arts does from artists and other workers absolutely is the type of transaction that deprives the lender of finite resources and does them real harm when it isn't paid back. The visible sector is the tip of a vast submerged iceberg of effectively mandatory debt, unpaid labour, unrelated day jobs and night shifts, overtime, informal childcare arrangements and domestic bargaining, borrowing, gifting, favours, friends' vans and lifts in cars, corners cut, partial or full subsidy by artists themselves in the service of the profits or salaries of institutions and galleries, indirect subsidy of non-payers and exploiters by all the individuals and institutions that do support artists properly, and everyone generally going beyond the call of duty in inverse proportion to any eventual kudos or rewards. Without all of this underwater mass, in most cases the pretty little iceberg wouldn't poke above the waves at all.

Some may say that this is just that mysterious, burned-out market monster in action; if anybody really wanted it, they'd pay for it, there would be a viable business model and “audience” for it. This ideology is so asinine and at odds with reality it's barely worth refuting, but I will anyway by analogy to the notoriously mercenary music and film industries. With all their power and supposedly bull-headed, populist business sense they a) regularly demonstrate how to not make a success of sure things with millions of dollars worth of R&D behind them and b) have not been able to get a grip on piracy for about forty years despite their most draconian and hysterical efforts, because if they can get away with it so many people are not prepared to pay for the films, TV shows and music they want, like, and in some cases love fervently. The global entertainment industry still incessantly releases stuff barely even meriting the term entertainment, being primarily and nakedly investment vehicles, contractual dodges, tax shelters, or money laundering. They fail hundreds of times a year even in this base and cynical aim.

The same goes for the top end of the art markets, with their zombie whatever-genre-ists, institutional shows for artists who just happen to have works for sale in an exhibition opening at a private gallery in the same city, their gross and grandiose pandering to oligarchs, tyrants and criminals. Neither the elite art world nor any of the most massive capitalist companies really work in terms of pure economic logic because they're all riddled with overt and covert state or private subsidy, croneyism and cartel tactics, lies, secrecy and corruption. So universally do they not work that capitalist logic is an oxymoron. Top commercial artists regularly fail to meet expectations at the auction or gallery, which is why we hear so fulsomely about the exceptions; it masks the reality that the commercial gallerist's, superstar curator's, or “thought leader's” [sic] career bears the same relationship to being a rational business as playing in a toy kitchen does to running a restaurant. They just look like they know what they're doing, eating the pretend cake and sipping the imaginary tea from the dolly cup. And they never look down in case, like Wile E. Coyote, they belatedly become subject to gravity after noticing that the iceberg they've been dining on top of has disappeared entirely because all the artists have maxed out their credit cards and left.  s

  Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer.
According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo.
He is based, divides his time and works.

This interview features in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of the Sluice magazine.

The next Alistair Gentry column will appear in the Autumn/Winter edition of the Sluice magazine, available from 8 November. Subscribe or buy via the link below.